Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part one of ?

One of the undercurrents running through many disparate projects I’ve been working on this year has been gamification.  It’s probably the buzzword of the year (running just a hair ahead of “mobile”), and seems to be following a classic Gartner hype curve.  It’s going to solve everything, and can be applied to every situation! It makes your boring museum content “fun’! And that’s not all…!  I’ve had it used on me enough that I feel my skin crawl a bit whenever I hear, say, or write the word now.  Is it just a knee-jerk reaction to a buzzword, or is there a deeper discomfort with the idea of making museum exhibits more like games?

by Flickr user Sherif Salama

I’ve been collecting references, reading up, and looking for useful practices to adopt or adapt while I sort out where I think this trend is going.  In the midst of trying to understand and unpack my reactions to gamification (ack), I had a brief Twitter and email exchange with Lindsy Szilvasi (@Ysdnil) that got me to stop thrashing around and start writing it out to see what I thought.  It turns out to be a tangled issue that brings in exhibits, gaming, games vs. play, play in museums, and more… There’s a lot to unpack. This will probably have to be at least a couple of posts long, so bear with me as I try to get to the point. There’ll probably be some ranting, too, along the way. I’ve ridden the hype roller coaster enough times to know this feeling…

by Flickr user

For you impatient readers, the executive summary (I think) is that I think there is a place for applying strategies used in developing good games to develop good museum exhibits, but gamification (ack) is no magic remedy for all the problems that exhibit developers face as they try to make experiences that attract and inspire museums visitors.

First, a word on interactive exhibits

In order to talk about how interactive exhibits might benefit from gamification (ack), I think it makes sense to explain a bit about interactive exhibits, what they’re meant to do, and what  I think they need to be good.

Years ago (think late 1980s- early 1990s), a European colleague asked my boss if her museum should “go with the flow and make everything interactive” so that they could attract more young visitors.  Back then, “interactivity” was the thing that was gong to solve all the museum world’s problems with attendance and “getting the kids interested” in whatever we wanted to interest them in.  Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s where gamification (ack) is in 2011.


by Flcikr user the_exploratorium

If you’ve used interactive exhibits in a science museum, you’ve probably used an exhibit designed by the Exploratorium. They demonstrated both the appeal and educational validity of interactive exhibits way back in the 1960s and 70s.  In their exhibits, visitors generally got to change a variable in the device being demonstrated and see the effect of that change. In Exploratorium exhibits a “Do This” label models the kind of activity that scientists might do if they were studying the phenomena on display.  So having a button, or a switch or some manipulable let visitors change something that a scientist would’ve changed if he or she were investigating the phenomena. The visitor action; pushing buttons, flipping switches, etc… was necessary to the educational goal of understanding what scientists do. And for that goal, interactivity is a great technique to employ.

But it didn’t take long for folks to see that people liked an exhibit much more if they got to do something, and decide that the doing something was the important thing, when what was really the important thing was the learning that it enabled. Thoughtful and clever developers could figure out ways to make button pushing coincide with relevant observation on the part of the visitors.  But, more often than not, the button pushing had nothing to do with the ostensible content being demonstrated and in the worst cases, the button pushing isolated visitors from the important parts of the phenomenon being demonstrated.

 When done well, interactive exhibits can engage visitors in active and prolonged learning experiences of astonishing depth and duration.  When done poorly, or gratuitously, interactivity damages the credibility of informal education.

I often liken the use of interactive exhibits to the use of techniques to make exhibits accessible to visitors with disabilities. If you approach it as something you *have* to do to survive in the market, you’re unlikely to produce a product that is compelling. It is a burden that is imposed by external forces and is resented. If you find a reason that it makes sense for your institution to embrace, then it becomes a lot easier to make it compelling. Exhibits that are universally designed are usually more interesting than exhibits that are designed to be “compliant” with government regulations, like the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) here in the U.S.. Exhibits that are interactive because that’s the best way to communicate the idea are usually more interesting than exhibits that are interactive for the sake of being “appealing”. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that same dynamic will apply to gamification (ack). We’ll find out soon enough!

Next up: Part Two – The qualities of good interactive exhibits